Nfld. & Labrador

Plastic pollution increasingly clogging N.L. coastlines, decades of data show

A new, lengthy report details a comprehensive picture of the plastics problem in the province — and it's not pretty.

To illustrate growing problem, a new study compiled data from 1962 to 2019

On average, plastics make up 87 per cent of pollution found on the province's shorelines — and a lot of that comes from fishing gear. (Jane Adey CBC)

A new report — which wrangles decades' worth of data from fisherman accounts to scientific sampling into one comprehensive and sobering document — gives perhaps the most complete sense to date of the plastic pollution problem in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The findings are not pretty.

The study shatters any notions of pristine ocean waters in the province, highlights the extent to which citizens and industry in Newfoundland and Labrador are the culprits to much of the trash, and shows the province's role in contributing to the international scope of the issue.

"The only thing that's getting better is the number of whale entanglements since the [1992] cod moratorium. Every other thing, every other type of plastic, every other place, it's getting worse," said Max Liboiron, the director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research in St. John's and one of the study's 10 co-authors.

"I wasn't necessarily expecting that, because it's a snapshot study."

The snapshot looks back to 1962 and carries through to 2019. The idea to sift through the decades came as Liboiron researched her own work involving plastic pollution, and found little dedicated to the area. But as her expertise deepened, she realized there were mentions, anecdotes and appendixes sprinkled throughout existing literature.

"I thought it was about time to put it all together, because it was so spread out, in government reports, and written on the walls of fisherman's sheds, and all over the place," she said. 

"So we decided to unite it, so we sort of knew what was what."

Lost and abandoned fishing gear, or ghost gear, is a major source of plastic and litter in the ocean. (Submitted by David Hickey)

Clogged shorelines

Uniting that work into CLEAR's new study took four years. The end numbers contained within are often large, and unsettling to read: 85 per cent of the province's ocean shoreline waste is plastic.

"That's normal. I mean, it's crappy and it's a little bit shocking, but globally, that's normal. Almost anywhere you go in the world, about between 80 or 90 per cent of what you find on the shoreline will be plastic," Liboiron told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

What is unusual, said Liboiron, is how that material is scattered about the province, with some beaches seemingly plastic hot spots, while others just a few kilometres away can be junk-free.

Overall, the pollution is spread out fairly evenly around the province's shores, and its waters: the study showed the density of plastics floating in surface waters in 2019 was higher than it was a little over a decade prior, at more than 5,200 pieces per square kilometre.

I thought people would generally would not throw plastics out windows, off boats, off wharves, but that definitely seems to be the case here.- Max Liboiron

The study authors also sampled waters in Labrador stretching farther north than Nain, and found the Big Land's smaller population didn't spare it from the pollution problem.

"Labrador doesn't have fewer plastics in the water than the island of Newfoundland. Also, that number has increased exponentially in the last couple of decades," said Liboiron.

While the report states that the province "fares well in comparison to many other regions," the trends show "that's not going to last for long," said Liboiron, as in some areas our forms of plastic pollution are worse, particularly involving fishing gear.

Such gear makes up 37 per cent of marine shoreline junk on average, a figure higher than the Canadian average, the report states.

Max Liboiron is an expert in plastic pollution, and a co-author of a newly published study. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Our plastics, our problem

As researchers sifted through the data, it became clear the vast majority of the waste plastic originated from within the province, which Liboiron said was a "really interesting and totally unanticipated finding."

Plus, we are spreading out own problem around, as "a lot of our waste is going over to Europe," she said.

Liboiron said that information came from collecting fishing tags issued in Newfoundland and Labrador, which turned up everywhere from Scotland, to southern Spain.

Only a quarter of fishing tags from Newfoundland and Labrador collected were found within the province.

"We're not getting other people's litter, or disposed-of plastics, but we're contributing to other people's plastic loads. So that really extends the sort of global scope of solutions we have to think about, because now we're being accountable to other countries," she said.

Cigarette butts, bags and other junk

Newfoundland and Labrador is set to bring a province-wide plastic bag ban into effect as of Oct. 1. But looking at the data in the report, it isn't clear if such a ban will have much effect, said Liboiron.

"The plastic bag story in this province is weird. And weird is definitely the best scientific description I can do," she said.

The report shows that such bags — meaning any sort of bag, from grocery to Ziploc —make up about two per cent of marine shoreline plastic.

N.L. fishing tags, similar to this lobster tag from Nova Scotia, have been discovered from Scotland to Spain. (Submitted by Martin Gray)

When researchers checked how provincial averages stacked up to Nain and Fogo Island, both places which have a plastic bag ban in effect, they found varying results. Bags made up one per cent of shoreline pollution in Fogo, but eight per cent in Nain.

"When we did this study in Nain, almost all the plastic bags we found — which is one of the highest rates in the province — were not the grocery bags that had been banned, they were other types of bags, which fall under the exemption of the ban in October," said Liboiron.

That makes it hard to say if the incoming bag ban will make a dent— or not.

"I can't predict how the bag ban will go, based on this data," she said.

A pollution problem without much contention, however, is plastic cigarette butts. Data in the report, much of it from a 2017 study by the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board, showed 88 per cent of litter on provincial highways is from cigarette butts, and comprises 25 per cent of shoreline plastic litter.

Liboiron said that shows butts are "a major source" of plastic pollution, "and that is not something I was anticipating," said Liboiron.

Overall, littering appears to be a problem, and one that makes its way into the oceans, sooner or later.

"I thought people would generally would not throw plastics out windows, off boats, off wharves, but that definitely seems to be the case here," she said. 

The study's data are not clear enough to show if a plastic bag ban would do much in terms of the province's pollution problem. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

What to do? Turn off the tap

Reading the 90-page report, it can become hard to figure out how to stem the polluted tide, or as Liboiron likens it to, a plumbing problem.

"If you ran into your bathroom and your bathtub's running over, do you turn off your taps first and get the mop? Or do you get the mop, and sort of just leave the tap running? Of course, you turn off the tap," she said.

Industry will need public pressure to change its ways, she said, which gives people some power to lobby for change. But some areas may also need government support, as Liboiron noted that decades ago, people in the fishing industry were given money to switch gear over to plastic-based options.

"If we want to do something about it, we're probably going to need that subsidized again, if we want to diversify what fishing line is made of, or retention programs, or recycling," she said.

The report also encourages more studies, which Liboiron suggested can come from grassroots sources, as she noted beach cleanups where volunteers catalogue their findings have been very helpful in scholarly research.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast

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